On Trying To Give Portrait Of A Lady As Fair A Shake As Possible.


The strengths of The Portrait of A Lady outweigh it’s aesthetics limitations and outlast the rages of it’s creator. The novel was serialized twice- Both In Macmillan’s magazine, and in 14 straight issues of the Atlantic-and it doesn’t have the impeccable structure and organic feel that one sees in his short stories. The form of the serial is subject to an editorial fiat that doesn’t necessarily jibe with the the design of a novel: one is subject to demands in regards to word count and each installment having a identity of it’s own. Unless the novelist has already put their work together or make extensive edits, the work isn’t going to necessarily congeal as a whole.( and in Portrait, James did neither).

There is also the matter of intent, and here I have to voice my hesitancy. Speaking as someone who first came to James via The Bostonians(his novelistic hit job on the women’s movement of the time) and Italian Hours( Where he raged about the tyranny of women’s voices, and complained about women’s “too advanced” status in culture 30 years before the suffrage movement), it was hard for me to read the arc of Isabel Archer’s story- a woman who rebuffs two successful yet doltish nice guys and gets into a fucked up marriage afterward-and not think it a hit job on women’s autonomy.  It was made harder still by James narrative intrusions:( His use of quotation marks when he spoke of Isabel as an “intellectual”, his boosterish love for Caspar Goodwood, and his tick of intrusive windy speechifying that pops up every 8 to 10 pages.)

What doesn’t make it that, In my opinion? Because for the most part, the story got away from him, and when the characters in Portrait run Away from James, the novel is in the ballpark of being as good as his most fervent boosters say it is. Like Tolstoy’s novelistic art was divorced from Tolstoy’s rabid moralism, the James who created Isabel Archer and the dynamics around her life was a different, more sympathetic, and infinitely more complex writer than the figure who raged about how women like her talk( or the pundit who intrudes in the flow of his own story). And the James who created such complex, exquisitely drawn side characters as Henrietta Stackpole, Ralph Touchett, and Edward Rosier will outlast the intellectually monochromatic essayist prone to the occasional Strindbergian outburst . Portrait may be a symbol laden dirigible of a novel-James tries to make statements on love, marriage, freedom, money, morals, decadence, America and Europe in one full book-yet it is to James’ credit-and gift for subtle characterization-that a great deal of them resonate. And his style! When he does lose him self in the dialogue and action of a scene(and isn’t beholden to the windy, comma spliced padding) James’ prose is as exquisite as his most fervent defenders say it is.

At it’s best, Portrait is a polyphonic meditation on independence, and tied to that independence is the almighty dollar. Money is central thing that haunts Isabel’s freedom, and the dark god that drives Madame Merle to puppet the marriage between her (Archer) and her boo, Gilbert Osmond. It also resonates in the story of Pansy Osmond-Gilbert and Merle’s daughter-being broken by/ made a cipher for her parents, and being cut at the knees by Isabel, who advises her against marrying the man she wants to marry. I wont go as far as to say that the villainy of Osmond and Merle completely escape caricature, but James does draw out a sketch of two narcissists in love and ( in moments) almost makes you care them. 

Once can also see the effect of money and freedom in the characters that serve as more effective and believable metaphors for America. Unlike Osmond(the charming art collector who devolves into a character of near Dostoevskian darkness) Edward Rosier is introduced as a synthetically snobbish, conservative trying to “come up” in the art world, but his love for Pansy, inner agonies and renouncing of status makes him a genuinely tragic character. As an observer, gadfly, and world class muckraker , Henrietta Stackpole plants the flag for the USA quite well and wonderfully, but her strong and loyal friendship with Isabel turns out to have several sad shades to it. (In letters James expressed unease and disdain for Henrietta, which speak both to James and the extent the novel is divorced from him)

Less compelling -and I will admit I might be in the minority in my opinion-are the characters of her first two suitors( Caspar Goodwood and Lord Warburton) I get that it was James intent to make him Goodwood dense and a bit overbearing, but the effect is heavy handed here and whatever way James was using him as a Symbol to say about America feels leaden. I also get that Warburton-a dunderhead good guy with nothing wrong with him save the fact that Isabel just doesn’t want to marry the guy-exists as a cipher for James’ greater point, Isabel’s freedom, agency and right to make her own damm decisions. His love for both men, however, is a distraction to the novels and almost muddies his point. Reading them, I got the same millstone to a narrative feeling that I got from reading the black criminals in Saul Bellow’s minor novels: I’m sure men like them exist, but you don’t get cookies for flatly putting them on the page.

In the end of Portrait Of A Lady-particularly in the last 150 pages, when Isabel realizes her husband is in love with Madam Merle and her life spins into a cycle of benign chaos-James the artist trumps James the polemic. He remains a darker and more complex figure than canon fetishists care to admit. In his attempt to come to terms with women’s rights, he often showed uglier sides to his personality. ( Even the lauded essays on women that he respected always came with the caveat that he thought them exceptions to their gender), There is too much intellectual dry rot and sewage in James’ work for me to make him a saint, but there is too much quality in his fiction for me-or the reader interested in history of the English language novel to ignore him. The best I can say about The Portrait Of A Lady-“baggy monster” it may be-is that it’s a novel that shouldn’t be ignored.


One thought on “On Trying To Give Portrait Of A Lady As Fair A Shake As Possible.

  1. There are no saints in literature. As you point out, James lost control of his characters and did some of his best work. Although different, Tolstoy had similar difficulties keeping Anna Karenina in the moralistic box he tried to construct.

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